Baseball in Japan: A Fan’s Experience

Jun 1, 2010, 9:26 PM | Updated: Apr 4, 2011, 7:52 pm

By Mike Salk

I’m gonna try not to bore anyone by talking ad nauseum about my trip to Japan, but I figured you’d all be interested in the one sports-related element to my trip: my visit to the Tokyo Dome to see the Yomiuri Giants and the Orix Buffaloes.

The experience of seeing baseball in that country was, in a word, amazing. There were so many elements of the game experience that they get right – with only a few missing the mark.

First of all, the Giants are the preeminent team in Japan. They spend more money, play in the biggest city, they win more and they have the most passionate fan base. So, perhaps some of my perceptions may be a little skewed. But judging on what I saw on TV plus what I’ve heard from others who have seen games in Japan or played in that country, the experience I had was fairly normal…for them anyway!

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As I said, the game presentation/fan experience was awesome. The dome was totally sold out (which always adds to the environment), and the jumbotrons show stats, highlights and information about the game without offering a steady stream of distracting garbage. The infield and grandstand seats hold mostly normal fans but the bleachers are for the real crazies. The home team (in this case the Giants) control all but one section and all of the fans wear their jerseys. There is a group with drums and horns and other instruments that lead cheers throughout the game. That one other section though was made up entirely of visiting fans. They also bring their drums and horns and they too play a big role in the event.

Concession-wise, they have everything you could ever want to eat and more. Yes, we tried the “octopus balls” and they have sushi. But they also have hot dogs and pop corn (though they write it “pop cone) and soda and beer.

Ah, the beer.

Rather than having to walk up to the concession stand for every beer or even wait for a gross, sweaty guy to pour it from can to cup, they have cute chicks walking around with pony kegs strapped to their back! They stand in the aisle wearing the uniform of the brand they’re selling (Asahi, Kirin etc.) and they pour your beer straight from the keg.

beer chick

Awesome.

Of course, there’s no need to play music over the speakers, or tell anyone when to clap because the fans are so engaged with the game already. In fact, they do most of their preparing BEFORE the game even starts! Every player to come to bat has his own cheer. And I don’t mean like “2-4-6-8, Who do we appreciate!,” I mean a full, organized chanted song that everyone knows. The Giants fans stand up and go nuts for their hitters, but as soon as the home half of the inning ends, they sit right back down and fall silent while their pitcher is throwing.

Now that’s not to say the park is silent then. Because the Buffaloes fans have their own set of chants for their players and they make all kinds of noise considering they control just a small number of seats. It’s an awesome experience to hear the two sides cheering away, but the most amazing part is the respect they give each other: they never even interrupt!

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As for the game on the field, there are some things you’d love and some things you might not.

I loved the hustle, and attention to every detail. They also work more on the fundamentals (situational baserunning etc.) which leads to a cleaner game. In talking to Mariners hitting coach Alonzo Powell (who played seven years in Japan, winning three straight batting titles), I learned that the Japanese teams are fanatical about preparation.

“The biggest thing in Japan is that they practice much more,” said Powell. “They just want you to be prepared. If you didn’t take batting practice and infield that day, you wouldn’t play. It wasn’t ‘show and go’ like you have here.”

On the other hand, Japanese baseball seems to forget about pitch counts. Yeah, everyone here likes to complain when a starter is lifted after 110 pitches, but it’s not surprising for young Japanese pitchers to throw 150+ pitches two or three games in a row!

In the game I attended, the Orix starter threw at least 15-20 pitches IN BETWEEN every inning! He would stand just in front of his dugout and throw to a squatting teammate! Crazy!

But maybe not the most damning example. Powell once saw a pitcher throw a 362-pitch bullpen session on his offday in spring training!

“I started off watching him, went to hit, came back, did 20 minutes on the exercise bike and I looked and he was still throwing! At that point he was only at 300!”

Can you imagine?

The final thing to note about their version of the game is that they play a very “risk averse” style. Sabermetrics aren’t exactly common there yet so they play a very traditional, safe game. That means they almost always bunt with a man first and no outs. It means they play their outfielders VERY deep figuring that they’ll give up singles to make sure nothing gets over their heads for extra bases. I’m not necessarily a fan of that approach, but I think it explains some of Ichiro’s background and why he can be frustrating to some fans who would like to see him swing more for the fences or dive for line drives.

All in all, it was very different. But something I hope every American baseball fan can experience at some point.

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Baseball in Japan: A Fan’s Experience